[Interview] Planning Commission and Its Outlook Towards Social Media – Interview with Mr. Vikas Bagri [Part 1]

planning commission of India

2013 will always be remembered as the year that government bodies finally woke up to social media. It is indeed very nice to see them trying to connect with the masses by making their presence felt on a digital platform.

A few months back, I was pleasantly surprised to find The Planning Commission, a government body, being involved in a hackathon. You hear of organizations and businesses conducting hackathons, but this was the first time a government body was involved in organizing one.

This hackathon certainly piqued my interest and we decided to reach out to Mr. Vikas Bagri from Office of Advisor to PM on Public Information Infrastructure and Innovations. In this interview, Mr Bagri talks about how the Planning Commission is leveraging social media to fulfil its objectives.

Keep reading to know more.

What are the objectives that Planning Commission is looking to fulfil using social media?

Before I begin, let me give this discussion some context; the background and my own position. I work with Mr. Sam Pitroda at the National Innovation Council. He is an advisor to Prime Minister on Public Information Infrastructure and Innovations and I am a part of his team. We are essentially a part of the innovation council activities.planning commission of India

One of our activities is looking at the use of media and social media – by the general public and also specifically of the government. We have been conducting a lot of experiments, part of which were Twitter conferences, and creating specific pages on various social media channels including TwitterFacebookYouTube, SlideShare, Flickr etc. We started from there and recently, from January this year, we partnered with the Planning Commission and decided to publicize the twelfth five year plan via social media.

The twelfth five year plan is an important document developed by the Planning commission that lays out the plan for India for the coming five years. An answer to your question will be that the twelfth five year plan as a document is not properly publicized, not well communicated and not understood well, especially by the youth. It is a document spanning across three volumes and consisting of over 1100 pages. One of the key objectives of the Planning Commission to get on to social media was to start communicating the twelfth plan.

While the media is new, it also requires new formats to communicate. You can’t simply send everyone a PDF link to the plan, and say, “Section one is on Education, go and read it.” It requires new formats of presentation like infographics, short presentations, and videos to make the information comprehensive and crisp. Hence, we decided that the communication of the twelfth plan will revolve mainly around the Planning Commission making the twelfth plan present on social media, and breaking it down into new formats.

Right now the twelfth plan is basically a three volume PDF available on the website. But in the last couple of months, we’ve broken it down into several presentations, infographic segments, short films, which is actually one of the outputs of the hackathon. So one of the objectives was to communicate the twelfth plan and second, Planning Commission wasn’t really understanding that social media is not just a communication media for the youth. If you compare social media usage to the population of the country, it’s pretty less, but it’s still a growing medium giving you a way to engage with the citizens. And slowly and steadily, the Planning Commission is starting to discuss intently on how it can mainstream its efforts onto this media.

What are the social media platforms that you are focusing on right now? Do you have a plan of action for each of them?

I am technically not a part of the Planning Commission, but our team executes the whole twelfth plan social media strategy. I can speak for the Planning Commission when I say that, as of now, it’s on six platforms-  Twitter, Facebook, SlideShare, Flickr, YouTube and Google Plus. And you can get links to all of them on the Planning Commission homepage.

Presently, we have started with an event-based approach. We do Google Hangouts and use Facebook, predominantly along with Twitter. The Planning Commission as a body is very new to social media and so far has the event-based approach I spoke of has been successful, receiving excellent responses from both our events. Internally as well, there are a lot of people in the Planning Commission who are new to this medium. Having now seen the impact of this medium, the rapid speed and directness of communication, and also the lowest possible cost overheads, they are more aware and enthusiastic about this new medium.

So we start developing a plan of action slowly. I mean, it’s very new to us. It’s been hardly two-three months since the Planning Commission has begun using Social Media.

How difficult was it to add a digital angle to the initiatives taken up by the Planning Commission? Did you face any opposition?

It was not really opposition as it was a little initial hesitance. The Planning Commission has larger goals in mind with the permutation of the strategy. Issues like the reach of social media, or the option of having an overall communication strategy with traditional media cropped up. Our argument was only that we need to do it quickly. We definitely would have loved to have an overall communications strategy, but new media is very easy and quick to do. It’s not that social media and traditional media are completely disconnected; a lot of traditional media campaigns are integrated with social media these days.

Another aspect which came hand in hand with the use of social media, was that we wanted to break the plan into smaller and crisper formats and segments. This is something that can be done very well on social media. So we decided to create infographics, short films, and short presentations. We will upload the presentations on SlideShare, upload the videos on YouTube, the infographics on Facebook, Tweet about them, and so on and so forth.

The team which decided to take up this challenge is very young, and voluntarily decided to incorporate this. So the finances involved in the activity was minimal. We did not put in any money for the Google Hangout. We spent only on the prize money and on travelling & conveyance.

Sometimes, the Government gets stuck because of the financial issues involved. Therefore, the senior people at the Planning Commission, Mr. Sam Pitroda were quite positive about it. Let’s see what happens in next three months and then we will take a call on how to go about similar scenarios in the future. Now that these events have happened successfully, the consensus is that we continue it this way.

They have been very supportive. At times, people internally say that they don’t understand the digital world but trust our knowledge and support us in our initiatives. Thus, everything has happened mostly  in an experimental mode.

Mr. Pitroda has used Twitter quite well in the past for holding press conferences. Can you please shed some insights on how the entire event was organized and what value was derived from it?

Mr. Pitroda, I think, has been on Twitter for nearly a year and a half or two. He was one of the few early ones in the Government of India to join Twitter and to start using it for work-related tweets. Later on, he came up with the idea of having a conference on Twitter.

sam pitroda

He’s involved with at least about 40 to 50 different projects and whenever there is an update he prefers to keep the public updated on what he’s and the Government of India have been doing. But he really wants to keep the citizens and the public updated on what’s happening, whether it’s a minor project or a major one.

This is precisely why you will most of his websites are absolutely up to date. For Mr. Pitroda, Twitter is a good way of talking directly to the people, to the press considering how widespread it is. It takes a lot of time to call for a press conference and arrange for it, and even then, people can’t make it to the press conference & miss out on it. So he figured this would be an interesting way of doing it, so let’s try and experiment with this.

Firstly, he is advisor to the Prime Minister on Public Information Infrastructure and Innovation. Therefore the first press conference was mainly on the Public Information Infrastructure part. The theme was “Democratization of Information.” He took questions on the Panchayat, Broadband, the National Knowledge Network, Fiber Optic Connectivity and creation of various platforms which will help democratize information.

This particular press conference was the first of its kind and became a global news phenomenon. We got a lot of responses from the people, from Mr Pitroda’s friends, saying that the press conference was great and we were also a part of it. I don’t remember the exact statistics, but we ran a quick check on one of these sites that gives you the number of people who were part of it from different locations. What I do remember is that there were at least 150-170 locations from where people were tweeting. A majority of them were from India, but there were people from the Middle East, UK, US, Australia, taking part as well.

In just 45 minutes, we got about 2,000 tweets out of which there were about 700-800 questions. Since this was the first time, it looked like we were not responsive, and were slow. But if you make the calculations with Mr. Pitroda answering, you will find that we were answering the questions in less than a minute per question. We had to first select the questions, read them, think of a response, and write it back. So at the end of 45 minutes of the conference, we had answered about 50 questions.

Since there were about 800 questions, there were 750 people left, without answers to their questions. We received comments at the end of it saying the press conference was slow and they didn’t get answers or that we were asking tough questions and so on. But overall this concept received an overwhelming response.

We did it like a press conference and this was a part of our thought process. We first opened up and said what we wanted to say. About 15 – 20 tweets by Mr. Pitroda, went out in the first 5 minutes or so. That was the opening part of the conference. And then after that we started giving answers to questions. By now, we had realized that one hour was not enough for the second conference as we had previously planned. It was right after the conclusion of the Global Innovation Round Table, that the National Innovation Council was organized.

The theme of the second conference was ‘Innovation.’ We had invited the PM on the conference on Public Information Infrastructure and Innovation. We had invited a lot of participants from the round table to join in from wherever they were if they were interested, and we received a very positive response following this invitation. Even in the second conference, we realized that one hour was not enough to address all questions. So we decided to extend the second conference to one and a half hours. Even then, we had to close within an hour fifteen minutes into the conference because we overshot our tweeting, retweeting capacity on Twitter. We realized that Twitter had sent us a message saying we have exceeded our limit of 1000 tweets per day. We were not able to tweet after that and we had to close about fifteen minutes before our scheduled time. In spite of this, the second conference went off very well. We talked about various innovation initiatives, giving us a chance to share more detailed things with people who were interested. We realized that some questions come up repeatedly, which meant that a lot of people are asking these questions. We can address these questions, and put them up on certain documents already present on the website. But the problem here is that most people don’t read the websites and the detailed documentation.

I remember there being questions on courts and pending cases in the court. We had prepared a paper called Courts of Tomorrow and tweeted asking people to go through the Courts of Tomorrow papers. It got retweeted a number of times and there were a good number of downloads. This means that people were interested in the content. When you’re using Twitter you don’t have too many characters and you can just quickly direct them to the right place. So Twitter helps to channel the interests of the public into exactly what they want.

Please stay tuned for the 2nd half of this interview.

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